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The Symphony of Psalms by Igor Stravinsky was written in 1930 and was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This piece is a three-movement choral symphony and was composed during Stravinsky's neoclassical period. The symphony derives its name from the use of Psalm texts in the choral parts, which Stravinsky was inspired to include because he had recently rejoined the Russian Orthodox Church following a sixteen year hiatus. The three movements are performed without a break, and the texts sung by the chorus are drawn from the Vulgate versions in Latin. Unlike many pieces composed for chorus and orchestra, Stravinsky said that “it is not a symphony in which I have included Psalms to be sung. On the contrary, it is the singing of the Psalms that I am symphonizing.”

Although the piece was written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the world premiere was actually given in Brusselsmarker by the Société Philharmonique de Bruxelles on December 13, 1930, under the direction of Ernest Ansermet. The American premiere of the piece was given soon afterwards by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with the chorus of the Cecilia Society (trained by Arthur Fiedler) on December 19, 1930.The first recording was made by Stravinsky himself with the Orchestre des Concerts Straram and the Alexis Vlassay Choir at the Théâtre des Champs-Élyséesmarker in Parismarker on February 17 and 18, 1931. "The choir, throaty, full-blooded, darkly, inwardly passionate, sing with liturgical conviction and intensity in a memorable performance."


The work is scored for 5 flutes (5th doubling piccolo), 4 oboes, cor anglais, 3 bassoons, and contrabassoon; 4 horn in F, piccolo trumpet, 4 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, and tuba; timpani, bass drum, 2 pianos, and harp; cellos and contrabasses; and a four-part chorus (soprano, alto, tenor, bass). Stravinsky stated a preference for children's voices for the upper two choral parts.

Notably, the score omits clarinets, violins, and violas.

General analysis

Like many of Stravinsky's other works, including Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, the Symphony of Psalms occasionally employs the octatonic scale (which alternates whole steps and half steps), the longest stretch being eleven bars between rehearsal numbers 4 and 6 in the first movement. Stravinsky stated that the root of the entire symphony is "the sequences of two minor thirds joined by a major third . . . derived from the trumpet-harp motive at the beginning of the allegro in Psalm 150". Because of the religious nature of this work, each movement is devoted to one of the hortatory virtues. The first movement represents love, the second movement represents hope, and the third movement represents faith. Interestingly, this reverses St. Paul's hortatory virtues, which were in the order: faith, hope, love. [The hortatory virtues referred to here do not appear in Symphony of Psalms, but in his Canticum Sacrum. This is thought to be because of the strong emphasis Stravinsky wanted to put on faith, since he had recently rejoined the Russian Orthodox Church.

Stravinsky portrays the religious nature of the text through his compositional techniques. He wrote substantial portions of the piece in fugal counterpoint, which was used widely in the church in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Stravinsky's chorus comprises men and children, which was the status quo for all church choirs throughout the Baroque period, since women weren't allowed to sing in church. He also uses the large chorus to create a ritual atmosphere like that of the Church. The most subtle of the techniques Stravinsky uses to portray the Church is the use of the church modes.

First movement

Woodwind part of measures 1-4 of movement 1 demonstrating the e-minor block chords and the octatonic, ostinato motifs.
The first movement of the Symphony of Psalms is marked "Tempo ♩ = 92” and uses the text from Psalm 39, verses 13 and 14. This movement was finished on August 15, 1930, which is Assumption Day in the Roman Church and is written as a prelude to the second movement, a double fugue. The movement is basically composed with flowing ostinato sections punctuated with e-minor block chords, in a voicing known as the "Psalms chord", which stop the constant motion. The first ostinato section in measure 2, which is played in the oboe and bassoon, could be six notes from the octatonic scale starting C#-D-E-F, etc., but incomplete sets such as this illustrate the controversial nature of the extent of its use.

If a liturgical character is produced by the use of modal scales even before the chorus's entrance (in measures 12-13, the piano plays an F-dorian scale and in measures 15-16, the piano plays in the E-phrygian mode), it was not a conscious decision:
I was not aware of "Phrygian modes," "Gregorian chants," "Byzantinisms," or anything else of the sort, while composing this music, though, of course, the "influences" said to be denoted by such script-writers' baggage-stickers may very well have been operative.
The presence of the chorus is used to create a church-like atmosphere in this piece as well as to appropriately set the Psalm. It enters with a minor 2nd motif, which is used both to emphasize the C#/D octatonic scale and set the pleading text. The minor second motif in the chorus is continued throughout the movement. The use of the octatonic scale and the church modes pervade the sound of the movement, contributing to both the ritual feel of the piece and the plaintive setting of the text.
Piano part of measures 15-16 of movement 1 demonstrating the E-phrygian mode.

One of the most surprising aspects of the movement is the G-major chord at the very end. This chord acts as a dominant to C minor, which is the starting key of the 2nd movement. This chord also evokes the feeling of the Picardy third.

Text (Psalm 39, verses 13 and 14)


Exaudi orationem meam, Domine, et deprecationem meam. Auribus percipe lacrimas meas. Ne sileas.

Quoniam advena ego sum apud te et peregrinus, sicut omnes patres mei.

Remitte mihi, ut refrigerer prius quam abeam et amplius non ero.
English Translation

Hear my prayer, O Lord, and with Thine ears consider my calling: hold not Thy peace at my tears.

For I am a stranger with Thee: and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.

O spare me a little that I may recover my strength: before I go hence and be no more.

Second movement

Score of the first 9 measures of the second movement showing the first two entrances of the first fugal theme.
The second movement of the Symphony of Psalms is a double fugue and uses as text Psalm 40, verses 2, 3, and 4. The first fugue theme begins in the oboe in measure one. The next entrance of the theme is in measure 6 in the flute, a fifth up. The third and fourth entrances of this fugue are in the 3rd flute in measure 13 and 2nd oboe in measure 18.

Soprano and alto parts from measures 29-34 of the second movement showing the first two entrances of the second fugal theme.
The first entrance of the second theme starts in measure 29 in the soprano, followed by an entrance in the alto in measure 33 a fourth down, which is harmonically equivalent to an entrance a fifth up. The third and fourth entrances are in the tenor in measure 39 and bass in measure 43.

This movement was finished on July 17, 1930, and Stravinsky pasted a drawing of the Crucifix in his sketchbook and wrote "Adveniat regnum tuum" (Thy kingdom come) on it.

Text (Psalm 40, verses 2, 3 and 4)


Expectans expectavi Dominum, et intendit mihi.

Et exaudivit preces meas; et eduxit me de lacu miseriae, et de luto fæcis.

Et statuit super petram pedes meos: et direxit gressus meos.

Et immisit in os meum canticum novum, carmen Deo nostro.

Videbunt multi, videbunt et timebunt: et sperabunt in Domino.
English Translation

I waited patiently for the Lord: and He inclined unto me, and heard my calling.

He brought me also out of the horrible pit, out of the mire and clay.

and set my feet upon the rock, and ordered my goings.

And He hath put a new song in my mouth: even a thanksgiving unto our God.

Many shall see it and fear: and shall put their trust in the Lord.

Third movement

The third movement of the Symphony of Psalms alternates "Tempo ♩= 48" and "Tempo

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